For the past two weeks, most of this blog's content has been focused on the poor execution of the offensive personnel. This jives with most of what everyone else is saying. The other popular narrative is that Chip's magical innovations have worn off and the entire NFL has caught up. While there may some truth to that, I think it's mostly lazy reporting from the usual analysts who would rather go for the headline grab instead of hunkering down and trying to dig deep down to see where the real issues lie.
Let me start by saying that I truly believe the biggest issue of the 2015 offense so far has been execution. And it's not just on the questionable starters Barbre and Gardner. As we've shown, the veterans are making tons of mistakes. We've shown numerous examples of where, if the personnel just did their jobs the way they were assigned, the offense would look a lot better. I wish I could say that that's all it is, but I have major reservations about Sam Bradford and we'll have to wait for a bit of a larger sample size to make radical conclusions there. But is it really that simple? Does it really come down to just execution, or does Chip, for the perhaps the first time in his NFL tenure, have to take a long, hard look in the mirror and see if the problem lies within the schemes and gameplans he, Shurmur and others have drawn up thus far in 2015. I do believe that time has come because some of the decisions Chip has made in regards to personnel and scheme just aren't making much sense to me. I thought I'd share a few thoughts heading into the Jets game.
Over the summer I took a pretty deep dive into the philosophy and evolution of the Eagles run game. You can dig back through the archives and give it a read. If you are too lazy to do that, I am going to reflect back on it and pull out some high-level points. Let's start with Part 1 of the series because this is where the conversation really needs to start. Since Chip has joined the Eagles, many have asked the question (including Lesean McCoy), why Chip runs so much out of Shotgun. With the help of guys like Chris Brown (@smartfootball) and Ross Fulton (@RossRFulton) I tried to answer that question. The short explanation is that it comes down to math. Football is 11 on 11. But because the offense will always have someone carrying the ball (who isn't blocking), You have 11 defenders vs. 10 blockers. Now if you have have a QB lined up under center who will turn his back to the defense to hand the ball off, you potentially are left with 9 vs. 11 and thus 2 unblocked defenders. Offenses need to find a way to re-coup those numbers. That's what Shotgun is all about. To put it into the context of Chip Kelly's offense, he has traditionally run from Shotgun so that his QB can keep his eye on the defense at all times and can essentially "block" a defender. This allows the offense to even the numbers a bit and to leave some defenders unaccounted for. This has a huge downstream impact on his offense's success because it, for example, allows his offensive line to gain advantages based on a variety of different defensive fronts. Sometimes, it simply evens out the number where you have 5 blockers blocking 5 guys at the line. Other times, it will allow you to double team on the playside. Other times it will free up an OL to get a free release to block a linebacker at the second level. Here are some of those examples:
So the key point I am making here is that the "read" or at least the illusion of the "read" (because the QB doesn't always read and make a decision) allows you to gain in the numbers game. This is one of the most fundamental reasons why Chip runs out of Shotgun. Furthermore, there's really more to it than that. Because in the past 2 years, we've seen time and time again that we don't just use the "read" to run, we'll use it to pass as well based on a number of packaged plays. Without going into too much detail because that link explains it all, the packaged plays are a way to further tip the scales in the offense's favor by reading a defensive player and putting him in a position where he's always wrong.
So why I am I re-hashing all this stuff again? Because, the zone read has all but disappeared from Chip's offense in the first 2 weeks of the 2015 season. Note, I am referring to "zone read" as any play where the QB reads a defender or creates the illusion of reading post snap to make a decision to run or pass.
So we need to ask why this has disappeared. The simple answer that everyone will give you is that it is because we have an immobile, one-legged Sam Bradford as our QB. Yes, there is some truth to that but it doesn't explain why he continued to run zone read with guys like Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez. Yes those guys don't have a long history of knee injuries and neither cost the Eagles substantial draft picks to acquire nor were they big money guys. Chip will tell you the Eagles don't run zone read nearly as much as people think they do, which I believe is true, but at least he creates the illusion of the read and leaves defenders unblocked. So what happened? First and foremost, it might be this:
Did Terrell Suggs' hit on Bradford in the preseason, and perhaps more importantly the NFL ruling and interpretation on the hit really scare Chip away from leaving that unblocked defender and creating the illusion of the read? Normally, I would say no. It seems to against everything Chip believes. However, maybe Chip the coach wouldn't care, but what about Chip the GM? All of a sudden if you are the guy that is "buying the groceries" and everyone knows it and all of sudden all your dinner guests get food poisoning, well where does the blame go? So perhaps Chip's decision to gamble the team's draft picks and dollars to land that franchise QB is for the first time challenging his coaching methods and thinking. I hope this is not the case, but it's worth putting out there.
Most importantly, it takes me back to the core philosophy. If you aren't going to take advantage of the advantage running from the Shotgun provides; why run from Shotgun? Especially when your franchise running back barely ran out of Shotgun during his career in Dallas!! In fairness to Chip, he did adjust a bit in the Dallas game by running more under center to try and take away some predicability, but if he really has to change his philosophy on that dramatically in-season, I don't think it bodes well for the offense in the long run.
Anyway, that kind of media speculation is generally not my thing. Bottom line, if we are talking scheme and scheme only, this missing element of the offense is absolutely hurting the offense. People have suggested that Chip needs to find ways to put his weaker personnel in a better position to be successful. This is one of the ways. Give them double team opps, give them free releases to the second-level LB, etc. Let the QB do some of the OL work. Yes, Bradford's not a running threat, but as we saw with Foles, defenses just can't (and won't) ignore him.
But since we are on the topic of mobility, that gives me a chance to riff more on compromises. Again, it's something we covered in the offseason with the running game series I referenced earlier. Chip hasn't had a mobile QB since Michael Vick, and whether that QB has been Mark Sanchez or Nick Foles, he's had to focus on different compromises to keep that unblocked edge defender honest. Things like orbit motion to the backside of the inside zone:
How about the split zone and wham block?:
Something else I threw out in the offseason was potentially using Jet Sweep action, a concept that is not foreign to Sam Bradford in the Rams offense with Tavon Austin:
Anyway, the point is, there are compromises you can build into your scheme to still allow you to do the things you do, and Chip has employed them in the past, I'm just not sure where they were in Week 2 in a big divisional matchup.
There are of course other things to mix in as well formation-wise. There is the pistol and motioning the running back pre-snap and counter plays and misdirection. We haven't even seen Sam Bradford play-action fake and roll out to the backside, a common offensive concept to keep aggressive defenses to the backside. We saw none of this on Sunday. Instead, there has been no "read" component and he's surrendering an eligible receiver like Ertz, Celek or Jordan Matthews to block in the running game.
One thing that Chip has done is try to balance the inside zone with sweep. It's a nice philosophy and should have been enough. The Eagles have just done a poor job of executing the sweep whether it's due to penalties or poor execution from the tight end or offensive line. In a way, Chip is absolutely right. Had we executed on all of those outside sweeps, you can bet Dallas would have backed off on their slants, gap blitzes, etc. But they didn't and the result is the result.
Furthermore, and as I suggested before the Cowboys game, he needs to mix things up in the running game. Don't even get me started on the absence of outside zone and power. And packaged plays? A lot was said about Bradford when the Eagles traded for him. A lot of talk about his injury history, about his skillset, etc. However, oftentimes when a player is traded in the NFL a lot of people talk about learning new schemes, etc. People have for some reason taken for granted that Bradford would just pick up the new scheme and playbook without issue. Perhaps it's because the Eagles pride themselves on keeping the playbook smaller and simpler. But it seems obvious to me that with Bradford at QB, the Eagles haven't opened up the playbook wide enough. A topic for another post methinks.
Bottom line if Chip wants to continue to build his offense around inside zone, he must re-integrate these concepts and more to keep challenging NFL defenses by maintaining his core philosophies regardless of who the QB is. If he does, and they don't work...well then we can truly open the floodgates on Chip's personnel decisions and whether the NFL has figured him out. But for now, I think it's a little premature.
In summary, this isn't the Chip Kelly offense we are used to seeing, and for perhaps the first time in his NFL tenure, Chip is forced to question the core tenets of his football philosophy.